Prevailing In Spite Of Nature

Located in the city of Gulf Shores on the coast of Alabama, Gulf State Park consists of 6,150 acres of pristine parkland. Nowhere else in the United States can one find fresh water (Lake Shelby) so near the salt water of the Gulf of Mexico. These unusual conditions help create one of the country's most unique state parks. The park is a natural gem featuring two miles of sugarwhite beaches, maritime forests and a habitat where animal and bird species flourish.

This area, however, is not always so peaceful. Throughout the past 25 years, Mother Nature has certainly made her presence known. In September 1979, Hurricane Frederick pounded the coast of Alabama and destroyed miles of beachfront property as well as 10 of the 28 cabins located in Gulf State Park. It took more than two decades, but in 2002, the state finally decided to rebuild and refurbish the areas affected by Frederick. The architecture, planning and interior design firm of Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates (TVS) was contracted to design a master plan for a portion of the park, which included a new hotel and conference center, in addition to the refurbishment or reconstruction of the cabins and pavilion affected by the hurricane.

A Stormy Beginning

Design of the new structures was completed in the summer of 2004. Bids for the project were accepted, but two weeks later--in September--Hurricane Ivan devastated the Gulf Coast. In addition to the 10 cabins destroyed by Frederick, another cabin was leveled by Ivan. State officials had to reconsider previous plans for the park while evaluating the massive rebuilding efforts needed throughout the Gulf Coast area of Alabama. Therefore, plans were scaled back, but everyone was determined to move the project forward to revitalize the park. The decision was made to reconstruct the 11 cabins and build a new beach pavilion along the Gulf of Mexico. Respectfully, the contractors already hired for the project were willing to stand by their bids and resolved to stay on schedule.

Aside from the cabin destruction, Hurricane Ivan also destroyed much of the dunes and vegetation in the park, including the site originally planned for the pavilion. Ivan had carved a trench from an inland lake to the Gulf that cut through the design team's proposed site. Subsequent investigation revealed a similar trench after Hurricane Frederick hit several decades earlier. It was agreed that Nature wanted the path to remain clear, so the pavilion site was moved several hundred feet to the west. Due to the extensive damage to the beach, a substantial amount of sand had to be moved back onto the site before piles could be driven and the floor slab could be poured. Throughout the process, millions of gallons of sand were dredged from the Gulf and placed upon the battered dunes.

Back To The Drawing Boards

Work on the cabins and pavilion began in 2005, but Nature continued to plague the Gulf Coast. Four major storms, including Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, impacted the site of the cabins and pavilion, and caused damage to the facilities. Hurricane Katrina left three feet of water at the cabin sites, and contractors suffered heavy material losses. In addition, Katrina also destroyed thousands of trees in the park that had been weakened by Hurricane Ivan. Meanwhile, Hurricane Rita dumped loads of sand into the beach pavilion. Regardless of the setbacks, the remarkable team of designers and contractors worked together to ensure a successful project for the Alabama State Parks and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

The Finish Line

With much patience and perseverance, construction on the cabins and pavilion was completed in early 2006. Today, 11 new cabins stand on the north side of Lake Shelby in Gulf State Park. Ten 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom, three-bathroom cabins were completed, in addition to one 1,600-square-foot ADA three-bedroom, three-bathroom facility. Each cabin offers unobstructed views of Lake Shelby and access to the Gulf of Mexico. Moving away from the institutional feel of many state park facilities, the new cabins embrace a lake-house feel. With fresh, updated exteriors and eclectic interiors, visitors feel as if they are enjoying the luxuries and comforts of a friend's vacation home rather than a typical park facility. Large windows allow natural light to flood the cabins throughout the day. The color palette includes vibrant shades of yellow bringing the sunshine in, and cool blues reflective of the waters of Lake Shelby and the Gulf. The furnishings give the cabins a true lake-house feel, resembling a home someone has furnished over time with unique, artfully mismatched pieces. In addition, the design team aimed at providing facilities that would enhance the beauty and wonder of the natural surroundings, rather than disturb the visual landscape.

Elegant Beauty

Less than a quarter mile from the cabins, standing elegantly on the beach along the Gulf of Mexico, is the new 10,000-square-foot beach pavilion. The structure takes a sculptural, almost monumental, form. Its sweeping roof responds to the winds blowing off the Gulf. With the floor at 17 feet above sea level, the height of the structure was based on Federal Emergency Management Agency requirements and a coastal engineering study verifying hurricane flood projections. The roof form grows from the substantial structure to collect a cooling ocean breeze as well as to withstand forceful winds, while also providing shade and cover for beach patrons. The roof design is a passive solar response, and offers respite from the summer sun while allowing the winter sunlight to warm the off-season patrons.

Warm materials were used to create welcoming public areas. Concrete, aluminum and wood were selected for their natural and simple makeup as well as for longevity and maintainability. In addition, they are more conducive to the often harsh coastal environment. The pavilion overlooks the Gulf and provides two covered gathering areas, a two-sided grand fireplace, restrooms with showers and a concession stand. Boardwalks extending from the pavilion allow for easy access to and from the beach. Lighting was designed to be sensitive to turtle migration. Direct light simulates the moon and encourages young turtles to migrate towards the light; therefore, all lighting had to be shielded. The facility is open to the public daily, but can also be reserved for special gatherings.

A Practical Budget

Planning for and rebuilding the Gulf State Park cabins and pavilion was a challenging process. However, the greatest challenge was simply providing the Alabama State Parks and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources with the optimum project for their budget. The state park system has a variety of wonderful facilities but, like most, it must balance the need for new projects with a heavy maintenance requirement. The overarching goal of this project was to provide buildings that are functional, attractive and easily maintained. Yet that does not mean the facilities had to be boring or plain. The park employees do a heroic job with what they have, and it is inspiring to work with them on a new project. They are well-suited to teach project designers about what works best for the situation, which may be different from that of a typical owner.

Working with DCNR was different from a typical owner. The state has numerous regulations regarding design and construction that appear to be cumbersome, but are not difficult to follow. Budgets are somewhat limited, but good design is not necessarily expensive design. A thoughtful examination of how people use a project can provide a well-designed plan that, if coupled with the clever use of standard materials and construction techniques, yields a high level of design within a limited budget. For instance, the cabin project utilized a small, highly efficient footprint with porches and decks that make them seem more gracious. Deep roof overhangs, warm interior finishes and great views make them comfortable for visitors. Likewise, the pavilion uses a dramatic roof structure providing shade and breezes in the summer, but allowing for warming sun in the cooler months. These simple solutions were born out of budget constraints but, more importantly, from inspiration from the client and the site.

Overall, the cabins are a welcome refurbishment to the park, while the pavilion is a fun, unexpected image on the beach. Standing alone on a two-and-a-half-mile stretch of pristine coastline, the pavilion is simply elegant. From both facilities, park visitors can explore all this 6,000-acre state park has to offer, including numerous ecosystems, three freshwater lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. With any luck, these facilities will withstand the test of time and hundreds more hurricane seasons.

Peter Green , AIA, is an Associate Principal with Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates. He has been with the firm since 1992, and has worked on the their most complicated projects, including convention centers, additions and renovations to Marriott’s Orlando World Center Hotel, InterContinental Hotel in Atlanta, Gulf Shores Hotel and Conference Center, and the University of Texas Hotel and Conference Center concept design. He can be reached via e-mail at